US, Israel raise hopes for Mideast peace restart

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 23, 2013 at 12:12 pm •  Published: May 23, 2013
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JERUSALEM (AP) — The United States and Israel raised hopes Thursday for a restart of the Middle East peace process, despite little tangible progress so far from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's two-month-old effort to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

As they met in Jerusalem, Kerry praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the "seriousness" with which he is looking at ways to revitalize peace hopes. Kerry expressed optimism without outlining any concrete strategy for ending a stalemate between the two sides that has seen them hardly negotiate one-on-one at all over the last 4½ years.

"I know this region well enough to know there is skepticism, in some quarters there is cynicism and there are reasons for it," Kerry told reporters. "There have been bitter years of disappointment. It is our hope that by being methodical, careful, patient — but detailed and tenacious — that we can lay on a path ahead that can conceivably surprise people and certainly exhaust the possibilities of peace."

"That's what we're working towards," said Kerry, who met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later Thursday in Ramallah.

Netanyahu said his conversation with the top American diplomat would touch on mutual concerns about Iran and Syria. "But above all," he said, "what we want to do is restart the peace talks with the Palestinians."

"It's something I want, it's something you want," Netanyahu told Kerry. "It's something I hope the Palestinians want as well and we ought to be successful for a simple reason: When there's a will, we'll find a way."

The visit, Kerry's fourth trip to the Jewish state since taking office as secretary of state in February, coincides with deepening pessimism from Palestinian officials about the new peace push. They are planning to resume their campaign of seeking membership in key international organizations as early as next month in a bid to put pressure on Israel into offering some concessions.

Without major U.S. pressure on Israel, the outlook seems bleak. The most immediate divide concerns the issue of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — lands that Israel conquered in the 1967 Mideast war and which the Palestinians hope to include in their state.

Kerry brought "nothing new" to his discussions with Abbas, lamented one Palestinian official familiar with the talks. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the private meetings, said Palestinian expectations remain low because they see Kerry "trying to accommodate the Israelis, not pressure the Israelis."

While Palestinians have praised Kerry's efforts, they say there has been little progress ahead of what they believe to be a June 7 deadline for action. They are already beginning work on a "day-after" strategy.

And they say there is no point in negotiating while Israel continues to build Jewish settlements. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, making it increasingly difficult to partition the land between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel also captured the Gaza Strip in 1967, though it withdrew from the territory in 2005.

The Palestinians have demanded that Israel freeze settlement construction and accept the pre-1967 frontiers as the baselines of a future border. While previous Israeli leaders have used the 1967 lines as a starting point for talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin says negotiations should begin without any preconditions.